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Il caffè di oggi. Beppe Fenoglio: writer, translator and lover of the English language and existentialism .

13 Oct 2022 3:33 PM | Anonymous

Beppe Fenoglio: writer, translator and lover of the English language and existentialism

Beppe Fenoglio (1922-1963) belongs to a select group of Italian writers who wrote about the struggle against fascism and the German occupation of Italy during WWII. Commonly referred to as Resistenza, this period begins with the end of Italy’s alliance with Hitler’s Germany and the armistice with France and England (September 8, 1943) and ends in May 1945.  The men and women who fought in the Resistance were called partigiani and partigiane. Among those who wrote about this historically significant period were Cesare Pavese (La Casa in collina), Ada Gobetti (Diario partigiano), Italo Calvino (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno), Elio Vittorini (Uomini e no), and Renata Viganò (L’Agnese va a morire).

Fenoglio was born in the town of Alba in the province of Cuneo in the northwestern region of Piedmont, an area famous for the production of wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco.  This hilly area called Langhe – a dialect form of the Italian word lingue or ‘tongues’ - figures often in the landscapes surrounding Fenoglio’s stories. 

In 2014 UNESCO included the Langhe among the World Heritage locations.

Fenoglio published several short stories.  His most well-known collection I ventitrè giorni di Alba (Einaudi 1952; The Twenty Three Days of the City of Alba2002) includes twelve short stories related to the capture and subsequent loss of his hometown Alba: “Alba la presero in duemila il 10 ottobre e la persero in duecento il 2 novembre dell'anno 1944” ("Two thousand Italian partisans took the city of Alba on October 10, 1944, and two hundred lost it to the Fascists on November 2”).    

During his short lifetime, Fenoglio published La malora (Einaudi 1954; Ruin 1995) in which he portrays the arduous lives of farmers around his hometown and Primavera di bellezza (Einaudi 1959; Spring of Beauty) which narrates the experiences of Johnny, a military officer from Alba, who becomes a partigiano, mirroring Fenoglio’s own life.  The title of the novella cites a line from the lyrics of the fascist anthem Giovinezza.  His major novel Il partigiano Johnny was published by Einaudi posthumously in 1968 (Johnny the Partisan 1995). Una questione privata (Einaudi 1963; A Private Matter 1988) was published two months after Fenoglio’s death; it focuses on the friendship between two partisans in love with the same woman and was the basis for a movie directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (2018). 

Fenoglio’s approach is often autobiographical but it became less and less so as his writing matured.  A distinctive feature of his narrative approach is the detachment from an ideological or partisan perspective: Fenoglio portrays the men and the women of the Resistenza with their fears, weaknesses, and ambivalence.  The influence of the philosophical theory of existentialism, espoused in Italy by Pietro Chiodi, a close friend of Fenoglio, is apparent in the clash between an ethics of rules and an ethics of responsibility.  Fenoglio stresses the importance of the choices we make to realize the freedom that the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre considered central to the human experience.  

Fenoglio loved the English language so much that he said he wrote Primavera di Bellezza first in English before translating it in Italian. Fenoglio’s translations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights also appeared in print posthumously

This year, the Centro Studi Beppe Fenoglio celebrates the 100 years of the author’s birth (March 1st 1922) with many events until March 1st 2023.

For a balanced and insightful discussion of Fenoglio’s literary production, see Tobias Jones’s recent essay.

Article written by Prof. Pieranna Garavaso

Picture Langhe - Vineyard landscape - Author: Valerio Li Vigni; Copyright: © Valerio Li Vigni

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